Oklahoma law requires public officials to conduct business in the open, but sometimes a law isn't enough.
Open government advocates complain enforcement of the law is nonexistent through much of the state, depriving citizens of their right to see how their state and local officials are making decisions and spending taxpayer money.
Open government is in the public eye because of Sunshine Week, a national effort to promote open government.
Although violating Oklahoma's openness laws is a misdemeanor punishable by fine of up to $500 and a year in jail, district attorneys rarely, if
There is no statewide authority to enforce the law.
“Technically, the attorney general's office is not the enforcer of open records or open meetings laws,” said Diane Clay, spokeswoman for Attorney General Scott Pruitt.
That leaves little recourse for those who can't afford a long and costly court battle, Senat said.
“By and large, district attorneys are reluctant to prosecute their fellow elected officials and their law enforcement colleagues,” Senat said.
In one recent case, a citizen complained when Lone Grove City Council members suspended a city manager without listing the action on the meeting agenda as required by the law.
Carter County District Attorney Craig Ladd recused himself from the case, which was then passed to Bryan County District Attorney Emily Redman. Redman declined to file charges.
In a letter explaining her decision, Redman excused the city council members from criminal wrongdoing partly because she could not find evidence they went into the meeting with the intent to violate the law and because they conducted their actions with the advice of the city attorney.
However, Oklahoma courts have said neither of those reasons is good enough to excuse officials from criminal liability. Much like motorists are expected to know the speed limit, public officials are required to know the law.
A willful violation requires only a blatant violation, not bad faith, according to previous court
Redman said in an e-mail that she takes the state's openness laws “very seriously,” but did not address the apparent conflicts between her letter and previous court
“The facts in this case as presented simply do not rise to the level of a crime,” Redman said.
Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, said prosecutors will often try to address a violation without filing criminal charges, either by sending a warning or asking officials to apologize when they make a mistake.
“It generally has to be an extreme abuse of power for the district attorney or law enforcement to arrest and prosecute a public official, even though it is a criminal act,” Thomas said. “Generally, they slap them on the wrist, tell them not to do it again, and hope they don't.”
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater filed charges against two Warr Acres City Council members in 2007 after they took a vote that wasn't listed on the agenda despite a city attorney's warning they were violating the law. The case was dismissed after both council members acknowledged their mistake.
A year later, Prater declined to file charges when the Oklahoma City School Board violated the open meeting law by suspending former Superintendent John Porter without properly listing the item on a meeting agenda.
Prater declared the action invalid because of the violation, requiring the board to hold a second meeting to suspend Porter again.
But criminal charges were not filed against any of the school board members or staff.
At the time, Prater downplayed the criminal aspect of the violation and sarcastically suggested his critics seek to petition the Legislature to make violating the open meeting law punishable by death.
Making a point
“I hear this excuse repeatedly from DAs that they don't have the time and money to prosecute on these things because they have to prosecute ‘big' crimes,” Senat said. “There aren't nearly as many of these violations as there are other crimes, and there would be fewer if they took it seriously.
“Public corruption is just as much a threat to our country as drug use.”
Prater did not return a call seeking comment.
Thomas said the maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $500 fine doesn't have to be applied in every case. But even a small fine of $100 and a day in jail likely would get the point across to public officials who aren't hardened criminals.
“It never really hits home with them that they are in jail until they hear the bars slam,” Thomas said. “You need a balance, but it doesn't feel very balanced now because no one ever gets prosecuted.”
Last year during her gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Mary Fallin addressed a gathering of open government advocates during Sunshine Week. She pledged to designate someone in her office to handle open records matters and to advise department heads to comply with open records and meeting laws.
Judy Copeland, Fallin's general counsel, said she is filling that role. But Copeland's authority is limited to executive agencies.
“When you start talking about city councils, I think that would be beyond what the governor would have any authority over if she wanted to,” Copeland said.
Without a statewide enforcer of the laws, Senat said he expects public officials will continue to ignore the law.
“There has got to be a better way than what we have,” Senat said. “When these politicians and bureaucrats refuse to obey these statutes, they are stealing from the public.
“They steal the public's right to know about their government and they hinder the public's ability to fully participate in their government. That's akin to public corruption.”
AT A GLANCE
Public corruption is just as much a threat to our country as drug use.”